How to Check Food Labels for Gluten - dummies

By Nancy McEachern

If you’re gluten-free due to a medical condition, then you need to be extra vigilant about avoiding every bit of gluten. Knowing what to look for on a food label is huge.

You may find conflicting information on the gluten-free status of some ingredients, so purchasing a list of known gluten-free brands in book or app form can help. Some grocery stores have a list of gluten-free foods they carry at the customer service desk, so start there.

Things change, so even with a guide, you need to check the labels of the food you buy to confirm gluten-free status.

Some ingredients have been controversial in gluten-free circles because myth and misinformation perpetuate rumors that they’re not gluten-free. In the United States and Canada, the ingredients listed here are not typically derived from wheat; if they are, the word “wheat” should be included in the allergy statement. This means, unless otherwise stated, these ingredients are gluten-free and safe to consume on a gluten-free diet:

  • Caramel color

  • Cyclodextrin

  • Dextrin

  • Dextrin palmitate

  • Hydrolyzed plant protein

  • Hydrolyzed vegetable protein

  • Maltodextrin

  • Modified starch or modified food starch

  • Vanilla extract

  • Vinegar (with the exception of malt vinegar, which does contain gluten)

A particularly puzzling ingredient is wheatgrass. If you’re in a fitness or health food store, you may see protein drinks and protein bars that are labeled gluten-free but contain wheatgrass. Wheat contains gluten, so how can wheatgrass be gluten-free? The fact is that wheat’s seeds, not its grass, contain gluten, and the grass can be around for a few weeks before developing seeds.

If you’re sensitive to wheat or allergic to it, steer clear of wheatgrass, but if gluten is your issue, wheat grass is gluten-free and safe.

Just because a product doesn’t say it’s gluten-free in big bold letters on the front doesn’t mean it’s not. Many products are naturally gluten-free and don’t call attention to it.

In fact, many companies use a lot of legal jargon to refuse verifying that a product is absolutely gluten-free, even though it is, because they’re afraid of being sued if a consumer with celiac disease or gluten allergy happens to get sick after consuming it. This is when guidance for the gluten-free community is especially helpful.

Here are some tips for avoiding gluten in your groceries by paying attention to labels:

  • Look for a seal from a third party that verifies an item is gluten-free. The three main certification organizations are the Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO), the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA), and the Celiac Sprue Association (CSA).

  • Find out all the different names for glutenous ingredients. If you think you may forget all the words you’re looking for, like malt, take a list with you to the store until you’re confident that you’ve got it.

  • Read the label, review the ingredients, and read it all again. Even if you’ve purchased a product dozens of times, check the label each time. Companies sometimes switch suppliers or change their formulas.

  • Contact the manufacturer, if needed. If you’ve done your research and know what to avoid, you’ve read the label, and you still can’t figure out whether a product is safe, call the manufacturer. Almost all packages and company websites list a customer service phone number or e-mail, and reputable companies are happy to talk with customers about their ingredients and processes.

  • When in doubt, leave it out. If your reaction to gluten is fairly mild and you’re unsure whether a food is gluten-free, a bite for experimentation’s sake may be worth the discomfort. But people with a severe reaction to gluten need to stay away from all foods that aren’t certifiably gluten-free. It’s just not worth it!